In a startling reversal, a Sonoma County judge Wednesday shaved nine years off a 12-year prison sentence handed down to a Central Valley prosecutor's son convicted of killing a man in a drunken-driving crash and leaving another in a coma.
Judge Ken Gnoss announced the new three-year, four-month sentence for Dylan Morse, 19, of Merced, before a courtroom packed with dozens of family members and friends of both Morse and his victims, several of whom made impassioned, emotional pleas to the judge.
Morse's mother asked for leniency to give her son a chance to recapture his life. The mother and father of crash victim Ryne Spitzer asked that Morse be given probation, but be required to care for their bed-ridden son.
The father of Michael Ruiz and others wore shirts emblazoned with a picture of his deceased 19-year-old son and said the original sentence "was right and it was just." But Morse's attorney Chris Andrian countered that typical sentences for the crime are about 3 years in prison.
The decision was Gnoss's to make, and his ruling means Dylan Morse will be eligible for release in about 28 months.
"To the families involved in this case, I'm really sorry," Gnoss said. "I know you wanted a longer sentence. But this is a state prison sentence," he said in defending his action.
Gnoss cited Morse's youth, lack of a criminal record and acceptance of the charges in recalling the sentence he imposed in July.
He noted the letters he received both in support and against the original sentence. And without directly addressing his reasoning, he said the passage of time allowed him to reflect on sentencing alternatives to the 12-year prison sentence recommendation made by prosecutors and probation officials that he initially agreed with.
"We certainly feel this sends the wrong message to those who try to drink and drive and cause tragedy," Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua said. "We were very surprised by the court's extreme reduction."
Morse, the son of Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse, pleaded guilty in May to three felonies and three misdemeanors in the Valentine's Day collision that killed 22-year-old Ruiz, a Berkeley art student, and left his own best friend, Sonoma State University student Ryne Spitzer in a coma. The crash also injured Ruiz's passenger, Vanessa King, 25.
Investigators said Morse and Spitzer were drinking at a fraternity party and bought beer at a grocery store with Morse's fake ID before they ran a red light at Stony Point Road and Highway 116 and slammed into Ruiz.
Toxicology reports showed Morse had a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.15 percent, nearly twice the legal limit for an adult driver, and had marijuana in his system.
Gnoss said in July he would "not tolerate, not accept this type of crime" when he leveled the 12-year, four-month prison sentence. Three months later, Gnoss announced he was reconsidering the penalty under a rare "recall" provision.
But he said Wednesday he re-read probation reports, letters and pre-sentencing memos filed by Andrian and reconsidered the sentence.
Gnoss said he could not justify probation but he would cut the amount of time Morse spent in prison by about three-quarters.
He sentenced Morse to 16 months for felony vehicular manslaughter with two, one-year enhancements for injuries to King and Spitzer. Prison time for the other two felonies was suspended. Morse must serve 85 percent of the sentence before becoming eligible for parole.